Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Boston Underground Film Festival 2014.4: Crimes Against Humanity, American Jesus, Starry Eyes, about half of EDSA XXX

Some year, I'm going to be up and about early enough for BUFF's Saturday Morning Cartoons program, although maybe it's better that I don't. As much as I think I've got a pretty good attitude about not getting wrapped up in nostalgia or romanticizing my youth, seeing a bunch of folks half my age enjoying the stuff I loved wholeheartedly as a kid ironically will move me toward years and/or rage. Yes, that means I'm feeling my age, which also means that I don't mind skipping the music video program that comes afterward to have a festival day that starts at 5pm and doesn't follow a full day of work.

"Crimes Against Humanity" filmmakers

First up: Crimes Against Humanity, with director Jerzy Rose and company on hand. It's a gleefully black comedy set partly in academia, which got maybe a little more play than it should have. It's a fairly universal comedy of terrible things happening to the people who don't go out of their way to be jerks to each other, although the environment of a college campus does have some unique features. More importantly, though, Rose had that sort of "assistant to the dean" job at one point and at least noted that there was some absurdity to be mined from it.

Frank Schaeffer Jr. of American Jesus

There was no guest planned for American Jesus, but Frank Schaeffer Jr. showed up, and it sounded more like he realized that a documentary that he was interviewed for was playing near his home and decided to show up than the festival folks hearing that one of the people involved was local and calling him up. I may have that wrong, but it certainly seemed like there was that kind of confusion going on.

At least it turned out that Schaeffer had an interesting background and was in a good position to converse on the entire sweep of the film rather than just his involvement as a result: He was raised by what now would be considered a very unusual evangelical family in Europe, promoted the cause as a filmmaker during its first jump forward in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then fell away from it as his politics and outlook changed while the movement itself grew more fortified. So, yes, he had thoughts about America's many brand of self-defined Christianity, and often appears on talk shows to discuss them.

He also mentioned that he doesn't hold much truck with the militant atheists, and these days attends Greek Orthodox services, but stopped short of identifying himself as still being a believe. He said he was drawn to the mysticism of the Orthodox Church, which is admittedly weird to me; I tend to think that once you've become fed up with the hypocrisy and twisting the world to suit your dogma of a religion, you might as well follow that all the way down and rip out the roots rather than search for a branch you like better, but I guess when a certain thing speaks to you, it speaks to you.

Almost completely unrelated: This had the logo of Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix on it, and he was listed as a producer. Just another reminder that despite being a guy best known for directing horror movies, he certainly has his hands in a while bunch of interesting things.

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Now, there's something you don't see at every film festival, especially before a movie filled with cynicism and blood. But, then, that's part of what makes festivals like this awesome; there is a community here, so if you're going to have a whole bunch of friends in a room anyway, why not say some vows? Sure, you've also got a whole bunch of random people like me in there, but by this point in the festival, we've got a bunch of affection for Nicole and Evrim too, and our congratulations are far from obligatory.

"Starry Eyes" filmmakers

There was, in fact, a movie playing in that slot, and Starry Eyes filmmakers Dennis Widmyer & Kevin K├Âlsch were there for a post-movie Q&A. Their movie was actually one that had me dancing around things in the review, because even if they were laid out in the festival program, they were far enough out of my head by the time they happened for me to be taken aback, and it seemed worth preserving the surprise. But, since you really can't talk about this movie without getting into the last act...

SPOILERS!

I wish I was able to formulate what I thought of a movie more quickly, because I'm kind of curious just how much of this movie was about literalizing casual statements like "I'm pulling out my hair" or "I'd kill/sell my soul for that part", and how many I missed. They do a pretty impressive job with it, building just enough of a backstory so that the metaphor doesn't seem entirely naked, and making it work from both ends. Yes, this is a story about a young woman selling herself for fame, but it also covers the flip side of the studios co-opting young talent and using that to destroy possible independent competition. I'm almost surprised that the movie didn't take things a step or two further and have Sarah played by a different actress at the end rather than just having a new look, although that's probably more my personal fondness for complete transformations, and more an Old Hollywood type of story anyway.

One thing they did talk about was really being excited by the idea of introducing an obvious heroine and seeing how long it took for the audience to realize that she was not actually a good person, but was in fact willing to take the shortcuts, betray her friend, and sell her soul for a piece of the big time rather than build something on her own. It's a nifty track we don't see that much of; even though Sarah goes bad pretty quickly here, it's very impressive how it happens right in front of our faces without feeling like a turn until there is absolutely no going back.

!SRELIOPS

Good, interesting Q&A, and between that and the pre-movie ceremonies, the hour between the end of Starry Eyes and the start of EDSA XXX on the schedule pretty much vanished, so I didn't have "well, I don't want to just hang around Harvard Square in the wet" as an excuse to bail on the midnight and get a couple hours more sleep in my bed. Shouldn't have needed the excuse, of course, as I wound up drifting off during that last film a lot, and, well, let's just say that I'm not going to be looking out for it on other festival schedules.

"Oui, Meu Amor" ("Hi, My Love")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

Setup, obvious (at least in retrospect) punchline, roll credits. That's what you can do in four minutes, and director Robert G. Putka hits that target well.

It's not quite that simple, obviously; a big part of why this one works is because it is played completely straight, right up through the final gag, to the point where it doesn't even have to play like a comedy piece if that's not where the viewer's head is at that moment. That is actually pretty neat.

"Where Does It Go from Here?"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

This is the second short film directed by Robert G. Putka in the block before the rather short Crimes Against Humanity, although at thirteen minutes it's not quite the same sort of tight joke setup, and that hurts it a little bit, because the payoff is trying to recast much more material in a somewhat different light. Also, the gags leading up to it - man is just a general jerk in situations where a little tact might be advised - is kind of tricky. The short is building up the "he won't actually go there with his sick mother" bit, but it's barely ahead of the rate at which it's alienating the audience, and by the end, n the two are more or less neck-and-neck. I think the funny comes out ahead, but it's awfully close.

Crimes Against Humanity

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

Even by black comedy standards, Crimes Against Humanity is kind of on the mean side. That's no knock; mean can work, especially in a movie like this that is more about tying jokes together than building to one thing - especially if it's got some pretty good jokes.

A lot of the rancor comes from Lewis Henry (Mike Lopez), whom we first meet passively-aggressively reminding his girlfriend Brownie (Lyra Hill) that he's off to work and maybe she should work on that. Said job is as an assistant to the dean at a local university, where he's having a grand time acting as a liaison to a private eye (Adam Paul) investigating something untoward in the ethnomusicology department. While he's doing that, Brownie has her first bit of just terrible luck, and while there may seem to be a silver lining in how it connects her with similarly-troubled Rory (Ted Temper), things are going to get much worse for her.

How bad? Well, that would be spoiling things, but make no mistake, writer/director Jerzy Rose has a cruel streak, and some of the indignities he and co-writer Halle Butler visit upon the cast are the actual literal epitomes of random ill fortune. They're still funny, though, in part because every character has had some trait or another exaggerated to the point where it is kind of annoying. Sure, it's kind of being a jerk for Lewis, but Brownie's tendency toward helplessness does make a dent in how sweet she can be. Even the straight men whose job it is to kind of talk sense to the lunatics around them push it too far, so it's kind of fun to see them take a literal or figurative beating, even if it is comically out of proportion.

Full review at EFC

American Jesus

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

As one of the many interviewees in this documentary notes, developed countries worldwide have generally seen a rise in the standard of living reflected by a decrease in strong religious faith, with the United States of America as an anomaly: As other nations grow more secular, vocal Christians grow ever more prominent in this nation. Why this is the case is just one of the questions Spanish director Aram Garriga asks, and even if he doesn't exactly answer any of them, what he finds along the way is generally interesting.

As the film starts, though, it feels less like a pointed investigation than a survey. The filmmakers travel the country, finding specialty churches all around: Hippie churches, surfer churches, mixed martial artists getting together to share their beliefs. Some seem to be commercially inspired (the MMA guy sells t-shirts), but most come across as fairly sincere. Eventually, the film gets to things like snake-handlers, mega-churches, and the birth of the modern evangelical movement in the 1970s.

Garriga and his team are, perhaps, building the film in the only way that makes sense; it's a very different movie if you start from the folks pushing a unified political agenda and then proceed outward to the eccentrics, and choppy if you go back and forth. The trouble is that the evangelicals are the most visible facet of American Christianity whether you're looking at the U.S. from inside or outside, so this movie initially seems to be dancing around the important stuff, and by the time it gets there, it is trying to juggle more topics than it can properly handle. And even with all that going on, it can still feel like it ignores the mainstream.

Full review at EFC

"Hum"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

A basic horror short which doesn't do anything particularly wrong and actually manages a good, gritty authenticity, but while it's got a hook that seems like it could come to something genuinely creepy - a persistent sound one can't get rid of is identifiable and also potentially nightmarish - there actually doesn't turn out to be a whole lot you can do with it. It's horrible, sure, but there's no story there, and when director Iain Marcks tries to boost that, there's no time to get into what's going on.

Starry Eyes

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

I am going to guess that the makers of Starry Eyes have not necessarily always enjoyed their time trying to make it in L.A. Sure, just by having made this movie, they have managed to get further than their characters, but it's not hard to see the inspiration for this movie: Take everything people say in jest about what it takes to succeed in Hollywood, and mean it.

As things start, Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe) is saying those things. She's pretty, young, tight-bodied, not untalented, and willing to spend almost every hour she's not working at a dinner with a kind of pervy dress code in acting class to improve her craft. But just when it looks like she has failed another audition for another crappy horror movie, a casting assistant makes note of the frustration and desperation that has her pulling out her hair in the ladies' room afterward and tells her to make use of that - one way or the other.

Sarah is not alone in this, of course - she's got a roommate in roughly the same situation and other friends with similar goals - but she's the one that's going to be tested, and there's dark territory to get through before anyone comes out on the other side. How dark? Enough that when things get really crazy toward the end, the audience is ready to accept this as the logical extension of everything else that has been going on, rather than the sudden and drastic shift in genres as which it might otherwise register. It's probably still going to lose some viewers, but more for the explicit way it goes about making this shift than the shift itself.

Full review at EFC

EDSA XXX

N/A (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

If there's another film by Khavn at Fantasia or the next Boston Underground, you might argue that whether or not I wind up seeing it is any kind of referendum on my ability to learn. The last film of his that I tried to see, Mondomanila, knocked me out mid-afternoon, and while I felt pretty good going into this midnight screening... Well, there are large chunks I never saw. I'm beginning to suspect that liking Son of God as much as I did is as much related to him having a co-director and making something that I could at least mistake for a regular documentary.

To be fair, I suspect that this one will fall somewhat flat for anybody without a connection to the Philippines. The satire is very specific, and those of us who haven't kept on the archipelago's history beyond vaguely remembering the awful absurdity of Ferdinand & Imelda Marcos will be lost to some extent. And as awesome as the idea of guys making movies with whatever they've got is, I think you've got to be a little more accessible for it to be worth cutting through the camp.

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